"Giles, this is absolutely pointless. I don't understand. I'm never going to understand, so can't you just give me a sixty percent and we'll call it a day?" Buffy begged, her head spinning with numbers and theories to the point where it almost hurt.

"Buffy you're perfectly capable of getting a grasp on this concept. All you have to do is focus," Giles insisted, speaking softly despite his exasperation.

"I am! I'm focus-girl, honest! My brain just doesn't like to cooperate with this kind of thing, that's all," she pouted, sitting back in the couch. "It's not like I'm ever going to use chemistry anyway… Would it really hurt to lie about my grade just this one time? I swear I'll never ever go into a science-related profession." Giles looked back at her, and as soon as his eyes made contact with hers, Buffy quickly insisted "Ever."

From his seat in the tiny room connecting the kitchen to the family room, Spike couldn't help but smile as he listened in on the conversation. It seemed he had another thing in common with the blonde girl; they both despised any sort of schoolwork, and were willing to lie if it meant they wouldn't have to deal with it any longer. What had him so spellbound though was just how cute she could make complaining sound. For a girl who apparently hadn't had much contact with the outside world in nearly a year, she had quite the personable attitude about her.

Maybe Giles was a better teacher than Spike originally thought.

"Look, I'm sorry Buffy, but I couldn't in good conscience give you a grade that you didn't earn. Especially when you could easily obtain a grade higher than sixty percent if you just set your mind to it," the librarian insisted, eyes locked with hers in an attempt to force her into submission.

Buffy held his gaze for a moment before she finally collapsed, falling back into the warm embrace of her couch. "This sucks," she sighed. "I can't believe you're actually gonna make me learn this stuff. I mean, come on. When do you think I'll ever be in a situation where someone happens to come up to me and say 'excuse me, do you know what an electron orbital is?'"

Spike snickered quietly in his spot, attempting to keep his eyes from wandering off their studious spot on his page. Honestly though, he should have been taking notes. He had no doubt that this girl could convince Mr. Saviour-of-the-World Giles to steal money from a charity if she really tried. If only he had her skills when it came to begging the old man for something.

"Well, that may very well never happen to you, Buffy. But you are going to have to learn it if you want to get into university or college someday. Many of them require at least one science course in your transcript," Rupert pointed out, his eyebrows lifted in that you-know-I'm-right sort of way.

The blonde girl visually deflated even further with that comment, her eyes going dark, body seeming to almost sag into itself. "Yeah…" she said quietly, beginning to toy with her hands. "As if I could ever go there in the first place." She took a quick glance around her living room, and made brief eye contact with her tutor before each of her emerald orbs began swelling with water.

Spike looked up from his page then, as he could feel the unusually prolonged silence beginning to suffocate him. Giles was standing over what looked to be a somewhat devastated Buffy, and the blonde punk frowned, wondering exactly what had gone wrong. The last few bits of their conversation had been somewhat muffled to his usually capable hearing, and he could only begin to guess what sort of turn it had taken.

"Oh," Giles said softly, looking down at his charge with grieving fondness. "Buffy, I'm so sorry" he said, rounding the table and sitting himself down beside her. "I didn't mean to…" the Watcher trailed off, and rested what he hoped to be a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry."

Buffy wiped at a tear that was threatening to fall down her cheek, but attempted to do so as discreetly as possible. "It's okay," she sighed. "It's just, sometimes I wonder…" she looked at her Watcher, around her house, and then back to him. "I mean, it's been a year Giles. A whole year, and I still get dizzy answering the door sometimes. I just can't help wondering… what if I never do get out of here? Is my life really worth living? Am I even supposed to be alive in the first place? Maybe I was supposed to have died along with Xander and Willow," she paused then to wipe away at more tears, becoming embarrassed now by her show of emotion.

"Oh, Buffy, don't talk like that" Giles insisted gently, wrapping his arm fully around his Slayer and pulling her into a fatherly embrace. "What happened to Xander and Willow wasn't your fault, and you can't let yourself think that it was your duty as their friend to go along with them. What you've got now might not be the most exciting thing in the world, but at least you're alive."

"I know," Buffy said, burrowing herself into the warm embrace of the only real father figure she'd known for a long time. "I know Giles. I just… I miss them so much," she sniffled, attempting not to get any of her almost freely falling tears on the tutor's shirt.

"Of course you do, Buffy. They were both very wonderful people…" he said tenderly, quirking a smile as he thought of something perhaps more cheerful to say. "I even forgive Xander for not liking books as much as any sane person should."

The Slayer gave a dry laugh at that, sniffling once again and lifting her head up. "I love you Giles… I really do," she said meaningfully, emerald eyes shimmering slightly as they gazed into his, a far cry from the standoffish way they'd met not long ago. "You're the best Watcher a Slayer could ever hope for," she grinned.

"Yes, well, I try," the Englishman grinned back, pulling his surrogate daughter in for a quick hug.

Still seating in his post between the two rooms, Spike could feel his heart breaking for the girl as she exchanged words with his distant relative. He thought he'd had a fairly good handle on understanding her situation, thought that the forever wounded look in her eyes might have been a sign that she was just a little more sensitive than the next person. But to hear her anguish actually articulated into words… it was almost more than he could handle.

Oh, yeah, he really was the Big Bad though. Really. But he was also human, and not willing to hear the girl who had practically stolen his heart be in so much pain on such a beautiful day.

Thinking quick, the peroxide fiend quickly came up with a diversion. Standing up, he affected the most panicked, frustrated expression he could muster. "Giles!" he half bellowed, waiting two moments before storming into the living room.

Buffy and her Watcher tore apart when the young adult made his appearance, hoping to make it look as if they had been up to nothing more than studying. "What…" Giles cleared his throat. "What is it, William?" he asked venomously.

Spike pretended not to notice that Rupert and the blonde girl were sitting oddly close to each other, and also gave a brief and sour response to his being called 'William'. "Well, Rupert, I've come across a slight problem. Left all my cigarettes in the car, and now I'm out of the ones I had stashed in my pockets," he practically growled, rounding his words with that beautiful English accent.

"And, what exactly does that have to do with me?" Giles asked, eyes narrowed as he attempted to comprehend the young man's logic.

"Well, let's see. You locked the car, which means I would need the keys to be able to get in. And seeing as how you've made your car off-limits to my dangerous hands- even though I wouldn't be caught dead driving it –you're gonna have to get 'em for me."

Giles let out an extremely exasperated breath of air. "Very well, Spike. Buffy," he turned to his student. "I'll be back in a few minutes. It'll no doubt take me some searching through the junk-pile that is his side of the car before I can find anything."

Buffy smiled wearily at Giles, daring a quick glance in William's direction as the older librarian dashed out, fishing for his car keys in his tweed pocket.

When the front door closed, signalling their isolation from any other human contact for at least a few minutes, Buffy and Spike were caught in a soundless vacuum, both shooting hesitant looks in each other's directions, both clueless as to what to say.

Spike was the first to step over the threshold, allowing a full thirty seconds of the almost uneasy silence to pass before taking the initiative. He sat down lightly next to the teenaged girl, forearms instantly going to rest on his knees as he hunched over, eyes staring straight ahead. "I uh…" the blonde outcast started quietly, voice just barely above a whisper. "I couldn't help overhearing some of that," he said gently, not wanting to ram the difficult topic head-on, but refusing to just dance around it at the same time. "You know, what you and the old man were talking about".

Buffy looked up as Spike turned his soft, caring blue orbs toward her, but her gaze instantly found a new position, boring into the decorative candle-holder hidden beneath mounds of paper and text books on the coffee table. "Oh," she said timidly, the sound barely escaping her lips.

"Are you…Is there anything you wanna… I mean, do you need to talk about…" he trailed off, not knowing where to draw the line between being polite and being pushy. He was terrified that he'd go too far.

"No," Buffy interjected, locking gazes with him for a moment, seeing that slight pang of loss, of pain, when she denied him any sort of conversation. "I mean," she went back to looking around the room. "It's just hard… you know… to explain it to people. I just, don't really like talking about it" she explained, brushing her hair behind her ear.

"It's all right," Spike assured her, sitting back on the couch, cranium twisting so he could look at her. "I mean… If I were you I probably wouldn't want to talk about it much either," he took a deep, silent breath, hands unclasping and running up and down his thighs.

God he smelled so good. Buffy was desperately trying to ignore the gently spicy scent twisting around her nasal passages. But for some reason it seemed… comforting. It wafted from the chest and limbs of a teenage boy who, although somewhat on the scrawny side, had already made a promise that he wasn't going anywhere. Maybe it was because she didn't know him that well, or because he wasn't the type to press for information, but Spike just seemed so safe to her.

Holding her breath as she did so, the Slayer slowly began to lean toward him. She caught sight of his chest, saw it rising and falling smoothly beneath the black texture of his t-shirt. Although her lungs currently weren't functioning, Buffy still managed to once again take in a drink of his scent, and she almost fell right into him.

Finally though, her head touched down upon its sought-after perch. Gold fused with ebony as her feather-light cranium found sanctuary on one sculpted pectoral muscle. She closed her eyes a moment, savouring what it felt like to have his smell and comforting heat diffuse into her body all at once.

Spike almost jumped as he felt her body make contact with his. His head spun in her direction, and looked down to see her pillowed softly against him, entire body curled into itself as if she were a helpless child.

"Do you mind?" Buffy asked.

Giles' distant relative barely heard her as she spoke, but he managed to stutter out an answer. "Huh? Oh, oh no of course not," he laughed almost nervously, the quick exhalation making Buffy smile as her head bobbed up and down with his chest.

With the same apprehensiveness that Buffy displayed, in a movement that was used to emphasize just how much he didn't mind, Spike's arm began drifting to a position around her shoulders. He touched her gently as he did so, as if he was afraid she would break should he be even a fraction too forceful. His arm settled into its nook around her small frame as if it had belonged there all along; a certain sense of rightness filled Spike's mind, a ton of weight being lifted off his chest.

Buffy looked up at him. Her hazel-emerald eyes met his and although sad, they seemed to say 'thank you' with a certain amount of glee. When Spike smiled back, the Slayer curled further into his warm embrace, his arm tightening around her as she did so.

"I've got you, love," he whispered. "You don't have to tell me anything… I'm here for you just the same." A fragment of their earlier conversation came back to him then, and he smiled. "And in the friendly way, too. So this needn't intrude on that little discussion we've gotta have later on about where exactly we stand on the relationship front."

Buffy grinned at that, head burrowing further into his chest. "You know what, Spike? I'm really starting to think that you're kind of great… That is, if you look past the bad hair and all," she said maliciously, steeling herself up for the wrath of his wounded ego.

Spike's eyes widened in insult as he looked down at her, further annoyed by the fact that she kept her gaze hidden from him. "Now, Buffy… I know that you're currently in a state of mental unease, so me 'n the hair'll let that one go this time. We'll just pretend that you didn't utter the words that instantly bring a good throttling upon anyone who utters them, and move on, okay?"

The Slayer's lips remained posed in their evilly grinning state. "Gee, thanks for sparing me, valiant William."

"Well, any brave knight would do it for a beautiful girl. Consider it my duty to mankind."

Beautiful

The word resonated in Buffy's consciousness a few times. He really thought she was beautiful…? He… really thought she was beautiful. Not knowing what to say to that, the girl just fell silent, enjoying the way it felt to be wrapped in someone's embrace and feeling as if she was protected from anything and everything.

Within only a minute of falling quiet though, Buffy's mind began drifting back to her deceased friends, despite the fact that she was trying desperately to focus only upon the boy who had her in his arms. Eventually though, Willow's screams and Xander's last few gasps of laughter filtered into her consciousness, and she almost whimpered when the familiar stab of pain clenched around her heart.

"I've seen some pretty scary shit in my life," Buffy said, hardly aware that she was speaking in the first place, her lips apparently moving of their own volition. "And I mean unreal scary… Like Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees scary, only those two are kind of like Mrs. Doubtfire in comparison. But it was the kind of stuff that I could stand up to, stuff that I could handle. I could look it straight in the eye and laugh as if I really was watching Mrs. Doubtfire."

Spike nodded even though Buffy couldn't see him, his hand gently stroking her upper arm now. He wasn't sure exactly what she was saying, but the tenseness in her body told him it wasn't something to be taken lightly.

"But this…" Buffy took a deep breath, eyes cold with fright as she stared straight into Spike's unmoving knee. "This was something different, the type of thing that shook me to the bones before breaking me in half. It was something human, something less powerful than me but something that I couldn't fight or win against," her jaw clenched, steeling up to clearly speak her next few words. "And it took away my two best friends, leaving me helpless to do anything about it."

"Xander and Willow?" Spike asked gently, head cocked.

Buffy nodded against his chest, glad when the slightly older boy's arm tightened around her. "When I moved here from LA, they were the only people in Sunnydale High who accepted me with open arms. Except Giles, of course," she smiled, briefly thinking of the day when she'd met the tweed-loving librarian. "I didn't have to prove to them that I was someone important or special. They were two of the best people I'd ever met; the type of people who you'd feel totally safe handing your life over to," she paused, needing a moment to re-focus her emotions so as to not start blubbering like a baby right then and there.

"About a year ago, we were hanging out, just like we always did. Willow was all hyper about a trip to the ice cream store. Xander was making his jokes as usual. I was walking along, throwing the odd comment in there. It was one of those perfect nights, and I was finally starting to feel like I belonged in Sunnydale."

Buffy's hand tightened around a clump of duster that she'd grabbed at some point, eyes burning in desperate need to shed some of the tears that were beginning to build up. She held them back though, needing to get this out, needing to tell her story to just one more person, hoping against hope that it might help to ease her turmoil that much more.

Giles had walked in the door only a few seconds before, catching the tail end of her most recent paragraph. He pondered for a moment about whether he should break in on the two teens, but the thought was quickly dismissed. Buffy was obviously opening up to Spike for a reason, and the last thing she needed was for him to go intruding on her friendship with someone who seemed to be adding a small glimmer of light to her life. Shutting the door as soundlessly as he possibly could, Giles paused only to savour his Slayer's happiness for one more moment, before creeping off into the kitchen.

"We were about to cross a street when Xander cracked another hilarious joke. Willow was practically doubled over, leaning on him for support she was laughing so hard," Buffy's eyes pinched tight as the first of her tears finally flowed over the brims of her eyelids, cascading down her cheeks to land in the small crevice between her arm and Spike's chest. "We didn't even see the huge pickup truck coming. It hit them head on, doing about 40 miles an hour according to witness reports… They didn't have a chance," she choked out, quietly sobbing into the English boy's chest by now.

His face was torn with empathetic agony for the girl, arms clasping her in what was practically a deathly grip by now. "Love, shh, it's all right," he soothed, pressing a kiss to the top of her head and smoothing back her hair. "God, I had no idea," he said gently, hugging her tight again. "I can't imagine living through that."

"The truck only just got me," she continued on, part of her mind conscious of and appreciating Spike's affectionate comfort, the other half knowing though that she had to trudge on through the pain, to finish off what she'd started. "I was okay… no broken bones or anything. But after I got out of the hospital, I got so scared of everything around me. I realised that there was just so much in the world that was dangerous. I'd lost two of the only people I cared about. I stopped going to school at first; Giles was ready to be my home tutor in a heartbeat. After a while though, I just stopped going outside altogether. I was afraid to step out the door, afraid to get sick or shot or stabbed or smushed by another car," she whimpered, clinging tightly to Spike by now. "And so we have the basis of my life for the past year and a bit… Glamorous, isn't it?"  Buffy sniffled and wiped away a few tears, a massive weight being lifted from her shoulders as she reached the end of her tale.

"Buffy, don't talk like that," Spike said gently, continuing to smooth back her golden locks. "It's not pathetic that you're afraid. Hell, if I lost my two best friends the way you did, I'd probably wet my knickers for a week!"

"Eww," the Slayer wrinkled her nose at the thought, looking up at him as if to say 'did you really have to mention that?'

"'S true, love! Really, you can't go getting down on yourself for bein' this way. You've had to deal with something that's far worse than the troubles that some people face in their entire lives… The way I see it, you're brave just for bein' alive," the slightly older man said honestly, hardly able to believe that such a tiny girl could withstand the force of so much pain.

Buffy smiled. "Thanks," she said, gaze still fixed upon his well-chiselled face. "Glad to know that I'm brave for not peeing my pants" she laughed wryly.

Spike rolled his eyes with a grin. "I didn't mean it like that."

"Well, it's how I saw it. Sorry if your Britishness is so cryptic to my soiled American mind."

"Oi! What's wrong with my bein' British?" Spike asked, wide-eyed and mock offended.

"Oh, nothing!" Buffy said as if she were actually hiding something. Her lips quirked as she attempted not to laugh.

Spike stared the blond girl down for a brief moment, a solid yet mischievously grinning expression hanging from his cheekbones. He held her gaze for five drawn-out seconds before finally moving in for the kill. One hand grabbed her around the shoulders while the other struck her sides, tickling the Slayer for all she was worth.

"EE! Spike!" Buffy squealed, hands desperately searching for his. "Spike!" she laughed, trying with all her strength to squirm out of his embrace. "Spike, Spike stop! Spike! Aah!" she burst into another fit of laughter, his tickling fingers rendering her motionless.

"What was it you were saying about my history there, Buff?" Spike asked, stilling his hands just long enough for her to respond.

Now, she could have been smart about this. She could have admitted that she hadn't actually been thinking anything particularly offensive about his country of origin. But, then again, she was having a lot of fun being tickled. After all, it was a harmless excuse to have him keep touching her. Steeling herself up for another attack, Buffy met her captor eye to eye. "Well, if you want my opinion… They're nothing but a bunch of crooked-toothed, tea-drinking, crumpet-eating, completely boring people with terrible musical abilities."

Spike was horrified. He was frozen for a moment, looking as if his entire ancestry, everything that made up his origin, had been chewed to shreds. Which, actually, it had. "That's it," he growled through clenched teeth. "It's the guillotine for you, girl," he said, raising a clawed hand. "DaaAaaAAHHHH!" he screamed out the battle cry before descending upon the helpless maiden ruthlessly.

"Aahh!" Buffy screamed again, her fits of laughter beginning anew. She just hoped there was no such thing as death by tickling.

¤---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---¤

Giles jumped at the sound of his Slayer's first high-pitched squeal, causing a few droplets of the tea he'd been drinking to spill over the side of his cup and onto the saucer. "What in the world…?" he looked toward the kitchen door with wild curiosity. Practically throwing his cup and saucer onto the counter, he had been about to jump up and head for the living room when the sensation of Joyce's gentle hand on his shoulder halted him.

"Rupert, there's nothing to worry about. Sit down," she said softly, her smile equally tender.

"Nothing to worry about? By God, Joyce, if William has insulted or hurt her in some way, he's going to have to answer for it," the Watcher's eyes were wild with protective fire, his entire body tensed and ready for action.

"Just…" she tugged on his shoulder, guiding him to sit back down, which he did after a brief hesitation. "Listen," she instructed, nodding toward the kitchen door again.

Giddy, girlish laughter drifted into the room, capturing Giles' ears and driving immediately toward his heart. Buffy was laughing. Buffy… was laughing. And not the polite, restrained laughter he'd heard her use so often. Not the airy attempt at a genuine form that she just hadn't possessed for so long now. No, what the older man heard was the sincere, thoughtless, carefree laughter of a normal girl. A girl who hadn't been chosen as the sole protector of every human being on the planet. A girl who hadn't lost her friends, and nearly gotten killed herself, in a tragic car accident just over a year ago. A girl who hadn't spent the past thirteen months trapped in her own home.

"You hear it?" Joyce asked, filled with as much disbelief as the man across from her.

"I do… But I hardly recognize it," Giles laughed gently, dipping his head to his chest. "Joyce, do you realise how long it's been since she's--" he cut off mid-sentence, having been in the motion of turning to look at her, but stopping dead when he caught sight of her.

The kitchen lighting was misleading, but it was angled against her face just enough that he could see tears shimmering as they slid along the gentle slopes of her cheeks. He didn't really know what to say to that; obviously she did know how long it had been since Buffy had last laughed like that.

"You know," she said matter-of-factly, making her best attempt to ignore the salty liquid streaming down her face. "I hardly know him, but I'm really starting to think that William is the best thing that's happened to Buffy in a long, long time" she paused, savouring the sound of her daughter's laughter once more. "So I hope you know that whether you like it or not, from this point on I'm going to be playing the part of the 'excited that her daughter has found such an amazing boyfriend'-mother," she said to Giles seriously, though her mouth was tipped upward just enough to convey that she had no intention of being a drill sergeant about it.

Giles pondered on the notion for a moment. Deep down in his heart, when he truly considered the type of person that William was, the former Watcher had to admit that he did see a lot of good beneath the boy's rough-n-tumble exterior. Of course, he'd never voice such opinions aloud, but what he could do was voice his approval of Joyce's standpoint. "I think I can handle that," Giles said with a smile, taking a long sip from his tea.

Both adults sat in silence from that point on, just enjoying the simple beauty to be found in Buffy's laughter. They enjoyed musing that their golden-haired princess, once broken and almost totally alone, had finally found the mechanic who could set the wheels of her life in motion once more.